The Silence of the Girlsby Published 04 Sep 2018
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From the Booker Prize-winning author of the Regeneration trilogy comes a monumental new masterpiece, set in the midst of literature's most famous war. Pat Barker turns her attention to the timeless legend of
, as experienced by the captured women living in the Greek camp in the final weeks of the Trojan War.
The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, who continue to wage bloody war over a stolen woman--Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war's outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy's neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece's greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles's concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and cooly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis's people, but also of the ancient world at large.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war--the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead--all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis's perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker's latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives--and it is nothing short of magnificent.
"The Silence of the Girls" Reviews
Royal Briseis is presented to Achilles as a prize for sacking and destroying Lyrnessus a neighboring city of Troy. So this is a re-telling of the final few weeks of The Iliad’s Trojan War from the perspective of a “bed-slave”. While Briseis has it better than the abject slavery of many other female captives her life is, in its own way, just as brutal. The prose of Part One is bewitching but it falls apart for a few chapters within Part Two where it veers off into clichés as well as attempts at conveying conversation with a sense of realism. You’ll recognize this sort of thing: “ We-ell, ye-es, no-o, list-en” which is annoying, distracting and unnecessary. We get back on track afterwards. The characters are gratifyingly complicated, distressed and conflicted. After all, isn’t this why these classic legends endure?
It's so hard to divorce my love of the Iliad from my experience reading The Silence of the Girls, but I think that's partially what makes this such a fantastic retelling. Told primarily from the perspective of Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, Pat Barker's novel endeavors to tell the unsung story of the female characters who litter the background of the Ancient Greek epic. And she does a pretty brilliant job.
The pleasure I derive from reading retellings, and especially retellings of Homer, is twofold: I want to see the author's unique slant on the narrative and feel that they're contributing something new to the story, otherwise what's the point, but I also want to be reminded of my love of the original. On both fronts, The Silence of the Girls is a resounding success. Pat Barker captured the grandiosity of these characters and events in a way that really struck a chord with me; I felt constantly on the verge of tears reading parts of this novel because Homer's musings on fate and free will and grief and glory - in short, what makes the Iliad so epic and timeless - are all echoed in Briseis' narrative. But Barker also manages it all from the sidelines, zeroing in on the experiences of a war slave who has no choice but to watch events unfold around her with no personal agency. Briseis is fully aware that she is not the hero of her own story, that she's narrating these events as a spectator to her own life. You could argue that at times she almost has a bit too much awareness of this fact, but as she's narrating these events from years later, the time and perspective have clearly allowed her to form the big picture.
I also felt these were some of the best depictions I've ever read of these characters, notably Achilles and Patroclus. I find that certain writers have a difficult time reconciling Achilles' brutality with his heroism, and likewise Patroclus' ruthless streak with his kindness. But Barker frankly addresses that, in times of war especially, these characteristics can easily coexist. I really felt that these characters had walked straight out of the pages of the Iliad into Barker's story, in a way that I haven't seen achieved by any other retelling I've read (except maybe Ransom by David Malouf, which until now has been my go-to recommendation for modern Iliad retellings). Briseis is a very minor character in the original, and as such, Barker had a lot more leeway with her protagonist, but I was also satisfied with the result; I was immediately invested in Briseis and I thought she added a much-needed and underrepresented perspective to the story.
My biggest issue with this novel the unwieldy execution of the point of view shifts. Though this retelling focuses on Briseis, so much of the backdrop and what drives the characters' motivations hinges on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and for Briseis to narrate that to us any more than she already does would verge too heavily into 'telling rather than showing' territory, so I really didn't mind the occasional inclusion of the male perspectives. But the first person/third person switch feels arbitrary and messy, especially since Briseis herself spends so much time observing and narrating Achilles's actions. I felt like Barker could have played with this a bit more; played up the uncertainty that maybe we aren't reading Achilles's thoughts, but rather, Briseis' interpretation of Achilles's thoughts.... but nothing is really made of this opportunity, as it's clear that we're supposed to be in Achilles' head, but rather unclear why we've switched over to his thoughts at any given moment.
But aside from that, this book was pretty much everything I wanted it to be. It's subversive yet subtle; affecting yet understated. It captures the epic scale of the Iliad and the quiet moments of beauty in the story and everything in between. It's definitely a subtler feminist retelling than the likes of Circe and The Penelopiad, but I have to say I much, much preferred The Silence of the Girls - though I would readily recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the aforementioned novels. But for all my talk of retellings and Greek classics, I really don't think you need prior knowledge of any of that before starting Barker's novel - it's a stunning story that should stand on its own just fine.
Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Pat Barker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is a retelling of the Illiad through the eyes of Briseis. Barker was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in 1943. She was educated at the London School of Economics and has been a teacher of history and politics. She is the author of several historical fiction novels.
Briseis was the mythical queen of Lyrnessus in Asian Minon at the time of the Trojan War. She finds herself trapped in the city walls as the Greeks lay siege to the city. She watches as Achilles kills her husband and sons. Briseis is taken prisoner and given to Achilles as a prize by Agamemnon. Captive life is not pleasant as Achilles bedmate, but she does have freedom of movement in the camp. She becomes key in the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon.
The story told from the Briseis perspective a queen who is suddenly a slave is exciting in itself since slaves and women never had a voice in that period (mythical or not). At some point, however, it does seem like women's literature especially when Briseis talks with the other women in the camp. The language appears too modern in places, but I suppose there were the same words in Greek as modern English. This is also offset by with battles and bubonic plague. There is a healthy mix of perspective, mythology, and storytelling in this novel. An excellent telling of a classic story that does adds to the original instead of harming the original. A well-done adaptation.
In Homer’s Iliad, women do not speak very often, except maybe for the goddesses, and Briseis, the central character of Barker’s novel, has no words at all.
"'Silence becomes a woman.' Every woman I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying."
Here Barker retells the story but from Briseis’ perspective, giving Briseis a voice but also allowing a view into the lives of other women in the story. What we get is a new view of a well-known story that focuses on the damage war does to those left behind. In the Iliad, women are seen as trophies, taken when a battle is won and the men have been killed and given as rewards or traded when needs be
"And I brought up the rear, along with the seven girls from Lesbos, and all the other things."
What we see is women surviving slavery whilst at the same time witnessing or waiting to hear of the death of their loved ones - husbands, bothers, sons.
Other reviewers have pointed out that there are some anachronisms in Barker’s storytelling. She makes reference to weekend markets in a time before the weekend was invented. She talks of “half a crown” which meant nothing in that time and place. But that doesn’t necessarily take away from the emotion that she is able to communicate. From the blurb and from the opening chapters, you can be forgiven for thinking this is simply going to be Briseis’ story. But Barker soon starts to take breaks from the first person narration to skip to events that Briseis could not have seen told by a third person narrator. A large part of the story becomes an interpretation of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus that concentrates on the “bromance” and potential sexual side of that relationship. And there are significant passages about Achilles’ relationship with his mother. It has to be said that the Achilles presented in Barker’s book is weaker and far more vulnerable that the traditional view and she also seems to have no real interested in the idea of his invulnerability (his death here is not, well, probably not, by a poisoned arrow in the heel). So, if you pick this up thinking it is Briseis’ story and nothing else, you have some surprises coming.
This mixing of viewpoints is both a weakness and a strength of the novel. Part of me wishes the narrative had stayed with Briseis all the time and that other events had been included as Briseis learned about them and reacted to them. But, at the same time, the portrayal of Achilles and two of his most important relationships is a fascinating parallel story.
This book has been billed as a “feminist Iliad” and I can see where that comes from. Briseis (and other women in the story) struggle to escape from male-dominated stories:
"Looking back, it seemed to me I’d been trying to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’ story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story - his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no part to play in it."
And as we end (I can say this as you can’t really spoil a story this old), Achilles has died and Briseis heads to a new life:
"Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story - and failed. Now my own story begins."
But the “feminist Iliad” is an interesting topic. It’s phrase pulled from a review in The Guardian, but other reviewers have commented that this is not a feminist rewrite: Briseis knows and accepts her lesser role in her society. I’m thinking this through because I didn’t think of it as a feminist re-write as I read it, but thinking back over the book and reading other reviews makes me wonder.
Overall, a book that is far more complex than I imagined it would be from the blurb, with more exploration of Achilles than I expected and with food for thought at the end.
My thanks to Penguin Books (UK) for a review copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
One of the hardest 5-star ratings I've ever given! I enjoyed it immensely, I read it in every spare moment, it was so exciting, but... it's not really deserving of being among the best works. I think I will always crave historical fiction and retellings of great myths, especially since Madeline Miller is not giving me what I need. While Circe remains one of the best books I've read this year, this one came as a great consolation, although the quality was not the same. It reminded me so much of another Miller's work, The Song of Achilles, which was a good thing, but it felt like a rip-off at times. So many similarities! But nevertheless, if you love ancient times and great rich writing style, this is a book you shouldn't miss!
Our main protagonist is Briseis, intellectuals would remember her from Iliad, but I most clearly remember her from the movie Troy. Well, the clearest memory is of Brad Pitt, of course. But still, Briseis was the main reason for the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, so she was pretty important. I loved the idea that I'll get to read her side of the story, since Iliad is famous for being a male-driven epic poem. Women were represented as trophies, a prize to be won and their beauty a token of men's worth. In this book, Briseis doesn't have much power and her inner voice is not really inspiring, but she sounded human and I felt close to her. She was no hero, she was an opportunist, but I find that much more inspiring than girls who jump of a cliff only to save their virtue. That is why I loved Briseis and the fact that Pat Barker made it clear that Briseis is a survivor. Her background story is not really clear, the focus is on her relationship with Achilles, but still, I don't know how good her husband could've been if she was repulsed by Achilles! The greatest warrior of that time! I know, she held a grudge considering he was the enemy, but come on! Maybe I'm still imagining Brad Pitt, but I was surprised with how long she had hateful thoughts towards him.
On the other hand, this felt soooo familiar. At times, I felt like I was replaying the exact movie scenes or reading the same book all over again. I am aware of the similarities that needed to be made, but sometimes, it was too much. Achilles was no side character, don't be fooled by the title. A huge part of the story is, once again, dedicated to his relationship with Patroclus. Achilles's grief and their connection, Achilles' battles and aftermath took so much of the story that the title is definitely undeserving.
Let me just conclude this with pointing out to everyone that Pat Barker has an amazing style. I just want to put it out there, so please, someone take this book, read it and confirm this to me. This was an advanced edition, provided by Random House and I am so grateful for this reading opportunity!